How this mom learned how to embrace the next big thing: Personalized learning

A couple of days ago I had conversation with three students that went something like this:

Me: How do you like your new class?

Student 1: I don’t think the teacher likes me.

Student 2: Yeah, he’s figured out how to skip the teaching part. All he does is direct us to a website where we work individually until class is done.

Student 3: The teacher’s fine.

The new teacher is trying out an individualized learning approach, sometimes called personalized learning. The basic concept is that it’s supposed to meet students’ learning needs while incorporating their interests and preferences.

A recent Rand Study says that options for personalization have increased as technology has become more affordable and available in schools. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic arm of pediatrician Priscilla Chan and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has made no bones about it. They are committed to  “…building a world-class engineering team with a commitment to developing breakthrough products and practices that support personalized learning.”

Like most people, I’ve heard of personalized instruction – learning that meets students where they are and is tailored to their interests. And I know kids like the technology. But…

All three students are excellent students, which the Rand Study says tend to do better with individualized learning programs. The students weren’t enthusiastic about what they were going, though! And I was certain I knew why.

Is individualized learning just solo screen work?

I’d recently come across the work of Santa Barbara-based neurologist and educator Judy Willis. An expert on the neurological basis of learning, Willis explains brilliantly in an article for National Middle School Association that she believes well-structured collaborative learning opportunities work with brain science to produce the richest learning opportunities. Willis experienced a collaborative learning program many years after she’d gone through a more traditional non-collaborative education process. She said her enthusiasm for learning in a collaborative setting essentially made her heart sing.

She then “…called upon [her] clinical and research training and experience in neurology to investigate the learning research being done through neuroimaging and brain mapping. [She] found evidence of brain and neurochemical activity that supported the positive results [she] was having with the cooperative approach…”

Willis maintains that brain scans lead us to believe that group interaction relaxes the brain and allows for deep, meaningful and joyful learning. While I’m obviously simplifying things, the takeaway is that the brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for memory and emotion, gets a great big hit from group collaboration.

Willis says that an ideal learning group ensures that:

“…each member’s strengths have authentic importance to the ultimate success of the group’s activity, you have created a situation where individual learning styles, skills, and talents are valued, and students shine in their fortes and learn from each other in the areas where they are not as expert. They call on each other’s guidance to solve pertinent and compelling problems and develop their interpersonal skills by communicating their ideas to partners.”

I had my evidence. The Rand Study estimates that students in the study that were involved in individualized learning gained about 3 percentile points in mathematics relative to a comparison group of similar students. In reading, there was a similar trend. But since i had hardened my heart against individualized learning, I assumed the researchers weren’t measuring everything. In essence, me – as a parent—knew more than the teacher and these Rand researchers.

When I brought up my case against individualized learning with a colleague, she pointed out that my theory may be interesting but I clearly didn’t have all the facts. Despite the name, a good personalized learning program involves a lot of group work. This prompted me to dig a little deeper and go have a face-to-face with the teacher. And, indeed, I learned that the students were starting off with some individual work online, but the project would soon involve a substantial and very rich group endeavor. In fact, I’m certain they will get the amygdala hit that Willis describes.

When it comes to individualized learning, I have a lot to learn. I – like many parents and educators – need to know more about this promising strategy. The teacher even admitted that he was learning how to best roll it out in his classroom.

As important: I’m going to use this as a teachable (learnable?) moment for myself. So many times over the course of 14 years as a parent I’ve blasted other parents for jumping to conclusions or overacting to some reported incident without having all the facts. This time it was me.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. Her husband and she have two sons, ages 13 and 6. Victoria is a part-time college professor (after being a first-gen college student) and has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, meditation, making homemade Oreos (“Victoreos”) and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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